Come January, President-elect Joe Biden will inherit a world of trouble, from COVID-19 to rising tensions with China. On one issue, however, he can achieve a significant win that has the additional merit of repairing a counterproductive rift between the United States and its closest allies in Europe: the Iran nuclear deal.
Thanks largely to the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the agreement in 2018, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has become a zombie accord, barely shuffling forward. However, the other parties to the 2015 pact—especially Britain, France, and Germany (the so-called E3), as well as the European Union (EU)—have kept the JCPOA alive and are in a position to bridge the diplomatic gap until Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021.
We have prepared a series of recommendations that aim to highlight the role Europe can play in preserving the JCPOA, promoting regional peace, and boosting people-to-people contacts with Iran. Taken together, these amount to a renewed transatlantic diplomatic agenda through which the US and its European allies can stabilize the nuclear file and then build on the resulting momentum to address other concerns with Iran.
On the nuclear file, we recommend that the E3 and EU immediately start a process within the JCPOA’s Joint Commission—ideally at the foreign minister level—to explore how best to sequence a restoration of full compliance by both the US and Iran. The E3 and EU should press both parties to achieve this prior to the Iranian presidential elections that will take place in mid-June 2021.
Once the US and Iran return to compliance, all participants should work to identify elements for follow-on talks. On the US and European side, this will primarily involve extending timelines for so-called sunset provisions with regard to critical Iranian nuclear activities that begin to lapse from 2023. For such talks to be sellable to Iran, the US and the E3 will also need to propose more meaningful economic relief, such as easing restrictions on Iran’s access to the US dollar.
An EU envoy could also engage in discussions with Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on nuclear security, safety, and safeguards provisions that they might embrace in tandem. These include ratifying the Additional Protocol of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, international conventions on nuclear safety, limits on the percentage and stockpiles of enriched uranium, and a ban on reprocessing plutonium.
A major disappointment with the JCPOA was that it did not have enough time to begin a new phase of regional diplomacy as the agreement’s preamble envisaged. Instead, tensions rose, particularly after the US sought to impose a total embargo on Iran’s export of oil in 2019 and Iran retaliated with attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities.
We recommend that the EU appoint a special envoy to work with Iran, Iraq, and the GCC on diplomatic pathways for reducing tensions in the Middle East. The EU and E3 could support the United Nations (UN) secretary-general and the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) in launching a process based on paragraph eight of UN Security Council Resolution 598, which ended the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and which Iran has cited in its 2019 Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE). Europe can also further energize three existing tracks of dialogue—led by Oman, Kuwait, and the UAE—between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
One area ripe for confidence-building measures is the maritime domain, where Europe could support a Charter for the Persian Gulf based on UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which could include early warning, notification of exercises, and nuclear accident crisis management. The E3 and EU could also begin a process of consultation on the role of artillery rockets, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, strike aircraft, and armed drones in conflict, with the aim of devising regional confidence-building measures, such as advanced warning of missile tests and constraints on the range and type of ballistic missiles.
The E3 and EU should also encourage more support for a swift UN-mediated settlement in Yemen.
Another casualty of the JCPOA’s travails has been people-to-people ties and support for civil society inside Iran. European governments should press for additional mutual release of detainees by Iran and Western countries, including dual nationals, and work with the UN and international non-governmental organizations to urge Iran to open space for a peaceful expression of views and activism.
European governments should also support renewed backchannel talks among European and Iranian officials and experts, as well as non-governmental US representatives, to restore dialogue interrupted by the pandemic. The Europeans should encourage Saudi Arabia to invite Iran to participate in the virtual G20 meetings in Riyadh in late November, especially as much of the focus will be on COVID-19 recovery.
Forty-one years after the Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains estranged from the United States and has complicated relations with many US allies. Europe and Iran have had their difficulties but have largely been able to maintain diplomatic ties. The 2015 JCPOA was a high point of European diplomacy with Tehran, with the E3 beginning the process in 2003 that led to the deal and the EU continuing to serve as the chair and convener for the Joint Commission.
Our report outlines a number of steps that Europe can take to shore up the JCPOA, promote regional conflict resolution, and revive people-to-people engagement. With both the US and Iran embroiled in domestic politics—and a short window before Iranians choose a new president—Europe can once again serve as a bridge to keep diplomacy alive.
Barbara Slavin is the director of the Future of Iran Initiative and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Ellie Geranmayeh is a senior policy fellow and deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Sahil Shah is a policy fellow at the European Leadership Network.